Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know about the Robinhood fiasco. In brief, several large hedge funds shorted stocks in several companies including one called GameStop. A group of smaller investors colluded to prop up these stocks with a frenzied buying program, costing the hedge funds billions of dollars. Then, in a move yet to be explained, Robinhood, an investment platform used by these investors, stopped sales of these company stocks for several hours.
The fallout is huge. Robinhood is being sued, investment groups are being investigated, and politicians are crying foul. Everyone is blaming every else; each claims to be the victim, and each claims to have done the right thing for the right reasons. But the truth is that no one set out to do the right thing; everyone was out to line their own pockets.
We live in a false world where people lie to get ahead and lie again to cover up their initial lies. Increasingly, we see people in powerful positions shamelessly wrap their financial greed and brazen power grabs in the bunting of compassion and ethics though nothing is further from the truth. They criticize others for the very behaviors in which they engage and when they are caught, they use slick doublespeak and spin to double down on their position. It is a Robinhood culture.
How fortunate are we, the Jewish people, that our sages have modeled a different approach? Our sages taught that it is more important to be truthful than to be right. If you thought you are right, but turned out to be wrong, acknowledge your mistake. There is nothing shameful about it, it is the only way to find our way back to the truth. If we double down on our lies, we meander deeper and deeper into falsehood.
Let me share several stories of sages who modeled this kind of anti Robinhood behavior.
The Talmudic sage Shimon Haamsuni, an impoverished rabbi who worked as a porter to provide for his family, and devoted his every spare moment to Torah study, embarked on a fascinating project. He made it his life’s work to expound on every Torah usage of the word et, which means “the.” His thesis was that if the sentence can be written without et, but the word et appears, it must have a message. Its purpose is to include something we might not otherwise have included. For example, the Torah tells us to honor the your father and the your mother. The word the is superfluous, therefore, our sagest taught its purpose is to include one’s older brother.
When Shimon reached the words, “fear the G-d your Lord,” he wondered what can be included alongside G-d? G-d is unique, and nothing can be feared as G-d is feared. He conceded that the word et cannot be understood as including anything alongside G-d. Once he conceded this, he realized that his entire thesis was faulty. If one et doesn’t carry a teaching, we can’t insist that the others do. So, Shimon announced that he was withdrawing from his entire thesis and retracting his life’s work—as I was rewarded for my expounding, so will I be rewarded for my retracting.
Rabbi Akiva took the podium and saved the day. The G-d your Lord, he said, includes our Torah sages. If you attach yourselves to a sage of Torah, it is like attaching yourself to G-d. With this Shimon’s life’s work was restored.
This story seems curious. Shimon concluded that nothing stands alongside G-d, how could Rabbi Akiva suggest that a Torah sage is on par with G-d? Moreover, it doesn’t appear that Shimon objected to this suggestion, if so, why didn’t he suggest it in the first place?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe once suggested that until Shimon stepped down, Torah sages had indeed undeserving of being included in this passage. When Rabbi Akiva watched Shimon step down, he realized what a true Torah sage is. A true Torah sage doesn’t seek to be right. A true Torah sage seeks to be transparent to G-d’s truth. If his life’s work proved false, Shimon did not hesitate to retract. Of what value were his ego and the wasted years compared to G-d’s own truth?
When Rabbi Akiva saw that a true Torah sage is transparent to G-d’s truth and makes no provision for ego, he realized that Torah sages belong in this passage. The Torah tells us to fear G-d. But how can you fear something you can’t see or understand? Watch the Torah sage toil to understand G-d’s truth, observe his sacrifices and his investment with nary a thought of his own achievements, and you will realize how awesome G-d is.
Can you imagine such a commitment to the truth? Can you imagine such humble self-effacement that nothing, not even the spectre of losing your life’s work, can dissuade you from seeking the truth? These are the values modeled for us by our sages.
Reb Chaim Brisker
Rabbi Chaim Brisker was invited to deliver a trial lecture in the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin. In the middle of his lecture, a young student raised his hand and asked a question. Reb Chaim is said to have thought for a moment and replied, you are right young man, and if you are right, my entire thesis is wrong. And, thus saying, he stepped away from the podium.
The dean of the Yeshiva offered him a permanent position on the faculty. When Reb Chaim asked why he was offered the position if his lecture had failed, the dean replied, I would rather a humble lecturer who values the truth than a masterful lecture who values his ego. We might not all live up to this absolute standard, but it is something to work towards, something to strive for. The world that we live in today, the Robinhood culture, doesn’t operate this way. But we must oppose the Robinhood culture. We must boldly and humbly seek and speak the truth.
A wealthy and scholarly Jew, who had a daughter of eligible age, visited many Torah academies to find the right candidate for his daughter. Wherever he went, he asked the students a difficult Talmudic question and announced that whoever can answer the question would earn the right to court his daughter. Not a single student could answer his question.
In one academy, he met a young man who also failed to answer the question, but when he left the academy, this young man chased after him and asked for the answer. I know I can’t marry your daughter, said the young man, but I still want to know the answer.
The man smiled and said, this is in fact what I have been looking for. I knew the question was too complex for young students, but I wanted to see who cared more about the answer than the prize. The young man was introduced to the lady and they were soon married.
The young man could have emulated the Robinhood culture and insisted that his answer was correct. But he cared more for the truth than the reward. We can’t all be like Shimon Haamsuni, but we can all learn the value of truth. There is nothing more precious than truth and this truth sets us free. Free from the burden of denial. Free from the Robinhood culture.